Why People Who Leave Their Religion are Angry (and Why it’s Not For the Reasons You Think)
It was late at night in November 2014, when my life suddenly, unexpectedly and radically changed. I'd been praying for nearly two days non stop in my mind and heart. What was causing me so much emotional angst? I had been part of the same religion since the day I was born (you could argue it had been chosen for me generations before my birth). Nearly all of my friends, family and community subscribed to this religion and its belief system. This religion had imparted all I "knew" about the meaning of life and death. I never had to give much more thought to those existential questions humans are uniquely known to ask.
But a series of unconnected events in my life over a couple of years led to my increasing frustration with this prescribed system I had been given. Personal, internal battles and an increase in religious study brought me to this breaking point on this cold, November night. With tears streaming down my face I begged God for the answers I needed. Once again, nothing came. Until it did. I felt a sudden overwhelming sense of peace and heard my internal wisdom say to me, "it's okay to let it go." The relief I felt was incomparable. I knew this was the best decision for me as sure as I had known anything else in my life. I felt a smile come across my face and peace come to my heart. I could let go of my inner turmoil and seek my own path. I believed I had the strength within to do so. I gave myself permission to do so.
Unfortunately, the morning didn't bring so much clarity. My mind was suddenly ready to ask the natural follow up questions "but if not this, then what?"
Then came the feeling of free-falling. And then....
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross published her theory on the five stages of grief in 1969. The theory was related to the emotional process people experience when being told of their terminal illness and impending death. Though on that November night, I was physically alive and well, a death did occur. A death of everything I had once held dear, and everything I thought I "knew,” and the me I had been. The losses kept coming in the months that followed: loss of some friend and family relationships, loss of respect of others, loss of a sense of community that I could lean on during my grief. What type of casserole do neighbors bring when you lose your faith? And I’m pretty sure Hallmark doesn’t make a card for such losses. Not that I told many people for awhile, anyway. However, the people I did share it with did not handle it well. People I loved and respected, and had thought loved and respected me, suddenly feared me, guilted me, patronized me and even abandoned me.
For a period of time after my faith loss, I was in a mental fog. Everything had changed, even though nothing had changed. Many times my emotions were numb, yet my thoughts ping-ponged through my mind. "What do I believe now? Who am I really? What is the meaning of any of this? Who can I trust? Where can I turn for support?” I was living in a reality that felt foreign to me. My brain struggled to keep up with the rapid-fire changes ignited by unraveling beliefs. It was like I had tugged gently at a loose string on a crocheted blanket, only to have it fall in a tangle of yarn at my feet. I desperately tried to squish the yarn back into it's once useful shape, all the while knowing it would never be the same again.
Bargaining came at various stages over my grieving period. I read everything I could about my religion. I studied more and prayed more. I learned far more about the doctrine and history of my lifelong religion in the months following that night then I had learned in a lifetime of faith-filled study of scripture and Sunday school curriculum. It was as if I needed to explore every path of the rabbit-hole, no matter the depths it took me. I needed to know if there was anything left for me and figure out where it and I all went wrong. The more I explored the more I realized I hadn't gone wrong. I was simply seeing things in new ways, and learning why things I'd never known, would not have been taught to me. I even explored whether I could hold on to some parts of my religion and still respect myself. That answer differs for everyone...
After the hope of bargaining would fade, the depression would inevitably creep in. The hopelessness was deep. I hadn't expected this loss in my life. I hadn't been prepared for it. I hadn't sought it. Let me say that again: I HAD NOT SOUGHT IT. But here it was. And it felt so unfair. What made the depression worse was when loved ones suggested my feelings of depression were a manifestation that god was telling me I was wrong. They assumed I was misled by the dark side or my worldly ways.
Some people couldn't understand why I couldn't see the values I wanted to live were in their church. Their assumptions of my lack of effort to come to a thoughtful, purposeful decision, and to follow my moral compass, left me feeling further isolated and misunderstood while in the depths of my depression. Did my loved ones not know me at all?
All this above, THIS is why people who leave a religion are angry with it. I was angry at a religious institution: One who certainly couldn’t care less whether I was angry at it! I was angry at my parents for not allowing other free thought (in my youth) and for leaving out so many doctrinal and historical details that would have mattered to me! I was angry at people who I perceived thought less of me, angry at those who purposefully distanced themselves from me and judged me, angry at the God I had once worshiped for being so complicated, and angry at myself for being so angry.
Relationships were strained during my anger. Majorly. My anger naturally triggered others' anger when I lashed out. They still believed in their religion, of course, and felt my attempts to share my feelings meant I wanted them to leave the religion too. Or, that I thought they were stupid for staying in despite the flaws and issues in the doctrine and leaders. I didn’t want people to leave their religion nearly as much as I wanted them to think well of me despite my leaving.
Still, what I failed to recognize is the grief in others my change elicited. I didn’t give their grief proper space. To be honest, maybe I didn’t want to give them space because I didn’t feel they were giving that same space to me. It turns out, when individuals are each grieving, and yet see the reasons for that grief so differently, it makes it pretty difficult to support each other through that grief. Then, after several months, I realized I was paying less attention to the anger. I was feeling less intensity when I felt the anger. The anger finally began to fade.
I thought the angry phase would never end. There were times I felt stuck in it. There are times I still go back to it. That's how grief works, after all. It's not a neatly packaged set of emotions. It's messy, complicated, and individualized.
Throughout my life, I worked hard to please my parents, my religion, and my culture. I never felt I sufficiently pleased any of them. Once grief began to resolve, for the first time ever I began to feel a new sense of self-acceptance. I felt peace. I felt able to explore spirituality in a way I never felt able to before. I found a deeper appreciation for the fragility of life and for human's capacity for emotional growth. I listened to a lot of philosophers and began to build a framework for the meaning of life and death. We humans really like to understand that stuff.
I accepted, too, though to a lesser degree, an appreciation for my life's path up to this point. I'm a caring, empathetic, equality-driven individual and I am proud of that fact. Ironically, it was growing up in my religion that fostered some of those aspects of myself, and yet it was because of those aspects of myself that I could not stay in my religion.
"it is, what it is."
I'm not sure who I would or could have been without growing up in that particular religion, because you don't get a do-over in life to find out. I didn't get to "Choose Your Own Adventure" before. But I do now. So I'll start now. I rarely now wish to undo what had been done. I just want to make the best of it from here on out and process what to keep and what to discard. I don’t even think I’ve changed that much...but... my parents may have a different opinion on that….
Finding meaning in the loss is one of the most powerful ways to recover from a loss. The meaning I found was personal happiness, authenticity and an ability to appreciate life in the here and now. No more waiting for perfection to come in a future life. I’m a messy, complicated, vulnerable, deeply loving person who is perfectly imperfect. Being able to let go of pre-chosen ideals for myself, my family, and my life allowed me to for the first time ever to figure out what my own ideals were. I no longer look forward to the peace of an afterlife, but instead fully appreciate the peaceful moments we can create for ourselves. I could live in the here and now, and be content to not be sure what's next. An even bigger point of meaning was to understand and support others going through the pain of a faith transition. There's nothing more validating than to be understood by someone who has been through the same thing you have. I now have the opportunity to be that person for others. I’ve been a therapist for several years and now becoming a Faith Crisis Counselor means a lot to me.
My family feared I would lose my morals and values through this process. I get it. Even I know some people who have left their religion whom, without that anchor, have outwardly seemed lost. I understand now that my family didn't want that for me. My values did change. I shed away the values of organized religion and found one guiding principle to follow throughout my life, one principle to impart on my children above all others:
Treat others how you would want to be treated. The golden rule. Maxim of Reciprocity. A rule that has stretched across time, religions and cultures.
So many people within my former religion, as well as those outside of it have demonstrated the value of this principle to me since and even despite my faith transition. For that, I am forever grateful.
Author: Anna Whisler, LCSW
Anna Whisler is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in Northern, Utah. She is a therapist and co-owner of Family Solutions Counseling and a former member of the LDS religion. Anna provides counseling to and respects people of all spiritual and religious beliefs and backgrounds, but considers herself uniquely qualified to understand individuals experiencing a transition in their faith. If pressed, she would most closely identify as a humanist but now thinks it irrelevant to label something so fluid and evolving as one's personal, spiritual beliefs.